Trumbo (2015)


Dalton Trumbo doing what he does best.

Dalton Trumbo doing what he does best.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Roger Bart, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Stephen Root, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel, David James Elliott, Richard Portnow, John Getz, Madison Wolfe, James DuMont, J.D. Evermore, Allyson Guay. Directed by Jay Roach

Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter who was once the highest paid in Hollywood; he wrote classic movies and was considered one of the most intelligent writers in the business and racked up a couple of Oscars to boot. However, even with all that he is better known for one thing; being a prominent member of the Hollywood Ten.

Trumbo (Cranston) was one of the leading lefties in Tinseltown, espousing pro-Union an pro-Socialist causes. While he had joined the Communist party in 1943, he wasn’t what you’d call a hard-liner; he was always more of a Socialist than a Communist, but “socialist” was even worse at the time, as the Nazis stylized themselves as Socialists. When unions went out on strike, he would never ever cross a picket line.

But the times, they were a’changing. Soviet Russia was no longer a war ally and the Cold War was beginning in earnest. Washington was beginning to look at Communist elements in our midst and in Hollywood especially. The House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, took an interest in Trumbo because of his outspoken support for leftist causes and of course his membership in the Communist.Party also made him a target. The vitriol of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) who saw Trumbo as the embodiment of the enemy was leveled on Trumbo and she campaigned vigorously with the studio heads to get him fired, particularly Louis B. Mayer (Portnow) who is Trumbo’s boss. Once he is slapped with a contempt of Congress charge however, Mayer has the ammunition to let him go.

And thus begins the blacklist as Trumbo and nine other writers and directors who refuse to testify in front of HUAC are denied employment for any of the major studios. Trumbo scrapes ekes out a living by writing movies and then having non-blacklisted “front” for them; that is, putting his scripts under their name and taking a part of the compensation for it. It is in this way that he wrote Roman Holiday for which he received an Oscar, although it was Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) who received credit and picked up the Oscar (a statuette was delivered to Trumbo’s widow posthumously).

Trumbo also wrote B movies for the schlockmeister Frank King (Goodman) and his brother Hymie (Root) including The Brave One, written under a pseudonym and also an Oscar winner (this one he received while he was still alive). However, in order to keep up the sheer volume of work he needed in order to meet the demands of the King Brothers and of course keep his family fed and housed and clothed, he had to work an enormous amount of time, employing his family particularly daughter Chloe (Fanning) as a kind of personal assistant while his wife Cleo (Lane) held things together. The toll on his relationships within the family would become nearly intolerable. It also sundered friendships as his friend Arlen Hird (C.K.) disagreed strongly with Trumbo’s methods while actor Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) found that his own career had been torpedoed by allegations and was put in the horrible position of either naming friends to HUAC or risk seeing his career end in flames.

Bryan Cranston was nominated for an Oscar for the title role and I can tell you flat-out that the nomination was richly deserved – in fact I like his performance better than winner Leonardo di Caprio’s. He captures a lot of the real Dalton Trumbo’s mannerisms from the clipped speech, the hunched over posture and the witticisms along with the look; his trademark moustache and cigarette holder. He looks the part and quite frankly, he dominates the screen here.

The script captures the paranoia and despair of the time. The conversations between Trumbo and Arlen Hird are really the heart of the picture, setting up the dichotomy between capitalism and socialism (again, Trumbo wasn’t really a true communist) and questioning the motives of his crusade. A speech near the end of the film is an emotional moment that underlines the true cost of the blacklist and of other events like it.

I have to admit though that I was extremely disappointed by some of the historical inaccuracies here. While I don’t mind using Hird as a fictitious amalgam of real people, I do object to writer John McNamara characterizing a particular character here as naming names to HUAC when historically he did not; there were plenty of real people who did supply names to the witch hunters and there’s no need to drag a person’s name through the mud unnecessarily. A fictitious character could even have been created to play the same role but the way that this was done is something I really don’t approve of. I don’t mind fudging history for the sake of dramatic impact, but I do mind tarnishing the reputation of someone who didn’t earn it. While Hopper who is portrayed here as a crude, egocentric and vindictive woman – all things that contemporary accounts support – and her descendents can’t complain of the narrative here, the family of that one character has grounds to object. Sometimes dramatic license shouldn’t trump sensitivity to those close to the people in question.

The movie looks pretty damn good, with some sweet locations (New Orleans substituting for golden age Hollywood) and some wonderfully framed shots (Trumbo’s first film credit reflected in the lens of his glasses near the end of the film). The ensemble cast is terrific head to toe. There are also some powerful moments like the aforementioned speech near the end and the funeral for one of the main characters. There is emotional resonance here as we see the price that people paid for the zealotry of others.

That this sort of witch hunting goes on today isn’t lost on this reviewer. We may not necessarily be singling out communists for discrimination, but there are certainly other groups we have become hysterical about (*cough* Muslims *cough*) to the point of ridiculousness, but I’m sure they don’t find it very ridiculous. Trumbo works as a look at a dark part of our past but it also serves as a warning about our present; we are either true to our principles or we aren’t. You may say what you want about Dalton Trumbo whether you agree with his politics or not, but he stood up for what he believed in because he genuinely felt that to not do so was to betray his country. I’m not going to judge anyone on their stance because in the end they all believed that they were right and were doing right by America. Maybe that’s the excuse of some who are doing the same exact thing; that doesn’t mean however we shouldn’t stand up to those who operate out of fear, rather than displaying strength.

REASONS TO GO: Bryan Cranston nails it. Captures the paranoia of the times.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary factual errors.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair share of profanity as well as some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first non-comedy film to be directed by Roach.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2007)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden

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Slumdog Millionaire


Slumdog Millionaire

Who wants to be a millionaire?

(Fox Searchlight) Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Saurabh Shukla, Mahesh Manjrekar, Ankur Vikal. Directed by Danny Boyle

When you live in abject poverty, survival is a day to day issue and nothing is guaranteed, least of all the possibility of a better tomorrow. However as difficult as it is to escape the slums, if that is what love requires of you then it must be done.

Young Jamal Malik (Patel) is a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” He is one question away from the grand prize of 20 million rupees when he is arrested by police and questioned. They are suspicious that a boy like this from the slums, uneducated and unaware even of who is on the 1,000 rupee note (It’s Gandhi for those who are wondering, and for those who aren’t, this particular banknote is about as common as the $1 bill is here) can answer questions that even the highly educated cannot.

After a night of torture, a patient police detective (Khan) sits Jamal down and runs through the tape of the previous day’s show one question at a time.

It turns out that Jamal’s knowledge is hard-fought, obtained from a life on the streets of Mumbai. Orphaned at an early age along with older brother Salim (Mittal), the brothers befriend a fellow orphan, the beautiful Latika (Pinto). The three are taken under the wing of Maman (Vikal) who turns out to be a heartless gangster who has accumulated dozens of children in his “orphanage” to act as beggars. He even, in a particularly gruesome scene, has the eyes burned out of some of their heads with acid to then be scooped out with a spoon like so much yoghurt. Salim leads them on a breakout but when he and Jamal make it onto a train, Salim purposely slips his hand away from Latika’s so that she gets captured.

The brothers wind up working – okay, scamming would be a better word – as tour guides at the Taj Mahal, brazenly telling tourists false facts about the Taj and throwing up bigger lies when their own stories are questioned. They are making good money but Jamal misses Latika, to his brothers’ disgust and urges them to go back to Mumbai and find her. When they do, they discover that Maman has been preparing her as a highly sought after virgin prostitute and is getting ready to make good on his investment by selling her virginity to the highest bidder. Salim winds up shooting and killing Maman. He then uses that to get a job with rival gangster Javed (Manjrekar) and proceeds to throw Jamal out of the apartment they share with Latika. Jamal’s heart is broken because Latika is apparently siding with Salim.

Years later, Jamal winds up working at a call center as a chaiwalla (tea server) and uses the database to find both Latika and Salim but succeeds only in finding Salim. Salim is penitent but Jamal is still focused on Latika. Salim is bewildered by his devotion and responds that she is “long gone.” When Jamal follows Salim to his house, he discovers that Latika is there but is apparently living with Javed. Jamal brazenly bluffs his way into the gangster’s house and confesses his love for her. She is reluctant to go with him, knowing that Javed would be furious but he promises to wait for her in Mumbai’s largest train station every day at 5:00pm “until she comes.” One day she does come but before the two can re-unite, she is kidnapped by Javed’s men (including Salim) in front of Jamal’s horrified eyes. One of the men cruelly slashes her cheek with a knife, driving away from an enraged Jamal.

When Jamal goes back to Javed’s house, he finds that the gangster has moved away. With no way to find his beloved, he decides to take a chance – to go on a game show that she is sure to be watching, and stay on as long as he can. And so far, he has stayed on as long as he can go – because every question has had an answer from some incident in Jamal’s life. But can he answer the biggest question of all – will he wind up with the love of his life?

Director Boyle has had a chameleon-like career, with movies as disparate as Trainspotting, Million$ and Sunshine to his credit. Here he takes Bollywood conceits and blends them nicely with western storytelling and creates one of the most heartfelt movies of the year. Winner of eight Oscars, including Best Picture, the movie captures the poverty of the slums and the heartlessness of those who exploit those in it. There are some exemplary moments in the movie.

The storytelling style has drawn some fire, which I find hard to understand. Yes, it might be a bit serendipitous that the questions on the game show echo things that happened in Jamal’s life in chronological order, but it doesn’t take that much of a suspension of disbelief. The flashback style by now isn’t anything particularly innovative, and I for one had no problem following the story.

Also worthy of note is the acting. The leads Patel and Pinto are particularly stellar; giving performances that belie that this is the first time either has acted in a feature movie (Patel has some television experience in Britain). Their chemistry is noticeable and more believable than some larger-budget pairings between established stars.

Many of the supporting cast, drawn from Bollywood, is also solid. I was fond of the heinous gangster as enacted by Vikal, as well as the smarmy game show host with an agenda of his own, which was played by the veteran Anil Kapoor. Special notice must also be given to the child actors who portrayed the two brothers and Latika at various stages of their life. Some of them had no experience whatsoever and were actually drawn from the slums of Mumbai.

The score by A.R. Rahman is superb, combining traditional Indian music along with hip-hop, r&b, rock and other western forms. The result is, like the movie, an engaging multi-cultural stew that gives us a glimpse of an entirely different world. In that sense, Slumdog Millionaire is science fiction, only it goes no further than our own world and reminds us that as a race we are far more diverse and wonderful than even we know.

WHY RENT THIS: Like other Danny Boyle movies, this one has a great deal of heart. Astonishing performances by first-time feature actors Patel and Pinto. A glimpse at an entirely different world than we in the West is used to.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The hype for this underdog movie may well have exceeded its performance. Some of the scenes of poverty, desperation, crime and torture may be too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some graphic scenes of child abuse and depictions of abject poverty. Also some violence, sex and foul language, enough that would make me think twice before letting the kids watch this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only Best Picture winner to date to win the Oscar without any former or future Oscar winners in the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD release is curiously lacking in anything but the basic deleted scenes-commentary-making of feature-trailer package that accompanies every major release, which considering this won 8 Oscars last year is awfully strange. The Blu-Ray contains all this plus a 41 minute Indian short, as well as an examination of the set-up and execution of the notorious toilet scene.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Box

Away From Her


Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent look out onto an uncertain future.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent look out onto an uncertain future.

(Lionsgate) Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Wendy Crewson, Michael Murphy, Kristen Thomson, Alberta Watson, Grace Lynn Kung, Stacey LaBerge. Directed by Sarah Polley.

One of the horrors of aging is Alzheimer’s disease. The effect of the disease on the afflicted person is devastating, but the effect on the loved ones can be even more harsh.

Grant Anderson (Pinsent) and his wife Fiona (Christie) have a good life. They’ve retired to a beautiful cabin in rural Ontario and live comfortably, surrounded by the accumulations of a long life together. However, there are some disturbing signs of change coming into their lives; Fiona is growing increasingly more forgetful, and has started to do some odd things, as when they are putting dishes away after a meal and she puts the frying pan into the freezer.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the practical Fiona has no desire to subject Grant to the agony of caring for her while she slowly and inevitably deteriorates. She makes the unilateral decision to check out a local nursing home. At first upset at his wife for acting on her own, he bows to her strong will and sensibility and drives her to the facility.

Once there, they find a pleasant environment with a caring staff but Grant balks when the facility’s director (Watson) informs him that he won’t be allowed to see his wife for 30 days while she adjusts to her new residence. He begs Fiona to reconsider, but she is firm and with a final sweet goodbye, sends him away. When he returns, the changes in her are pronounced. She’s developed a relationship with Aubrey (Murphy), a mute patient whom she cares for as a nurse for a patient. Whether the relationship is more than that isn’t clear; Grant wasn’t faithful to her early in their marriage and he wonders if she’s taking revenge for that. Some days she seems to recognize him, others it’s clear she has no clue who he is. Devastated, Grant takes advice from a sympathetic nurse (Thomson) and Aubrey’s wife (Dukakis), a practical, plain-spoken woman who sees the inevitable but can’t quite bring herself to let go.

Director Polley, best known as an actress in such films as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the “John Adams” miniseries as well as an impressive roster of indie movies, proves to be a director of enormous potential. She brings a deft touch to a subject matter that could easily become maudlin in less capable hands. Her gaze is unflinching and honest but never feels forced. The Andersons are robust and handsome in their age, but they aren’t archetypes; they’re real people with flaws and no clear direction of what to do. That’s a tribute to the original Alice Munro short story it was adapted from and also to Polley’s writing for which she was Oscar-nominated.

Most of the movie takes place in the winter, but Polley resists the temptation to make the film overcast and gloomy. Instead, nearly everything takes place in bright winter sunlight reflecting off the snow that sparkles like diamonds. The winter metaphor works for that reason without becoming cliché.

Christie and Pinsent are in every scene, either separately or together, and they both deliver outstanding performances. While Christie was recognized with an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win, I found Pinsent’s performance more riveting as he captures the agony and desperation of a good man seeing the love of his life deteriorate before his eyes.

Despite the acclaim and Oscar buzz, this Canadian production didn’t receive widespread distribution here in the States. Nevertheless this is a movie worth seeking out not just for the subject matter, which may be off-putting for those with phobias about aging and the issues that the elderly face, but also for the on-screen performances which are as compelling as any you’ll see in a small film like this. You may also want to rent it if for no other reason, to mark the occasion of the emergence of a great director who is bound to release some wonderful movies as her career progresses.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by the entire cast, particularly the two leads. Beautiful snow-covered exteriors in rural Ontario. An impressive script that never stoops to emotional manipulation or maudlin clichés.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Subject matter may be too age-centric for some. Some of the subplots are merely touched upon without satisfying resolutions.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit too intense for kids wondering why grandpa is so forgetful.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lionsgate paid $750,000 for the rights to distribute this film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing notable on the American release; however Canadian readers might look into the 2-Disc special edition for a short film from Polley entitled I Shout Love as well as additional film commentary from Christie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Strayed (Les Egares)

The Wrestler


Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke share a tender moment.

Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke share a tender moment.

(Fox Searchlight) Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens, Judah Friedlander, Ernest Miller. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The world of professional wrestling is deceptive. While there are “superstars” who command huge salaries and fan adulation, there are hundreds of others toiling in smaller promotions trying to get their big break. Those superstars, however, don’t always stay at the top and once you fall, there’s only one direction to go.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) has gone there. One of wrestling’s top draws in the ‘80s, he is struggling to make ends meet – and not always succeeding – twenty years after the fact. He still wrestles, but out of the limelight for smaller promotions. After a grueling match with an eager young up-and-comer, he comes home to find he’s been locked out of his trailer, so he’s forced to sleep in his van.

During the week he stocks groceries at a local grocery store for a boss who is less than sympathetic (Barry) which pays for most of his bills. At night, he patronizes a strip club where he has taken a shine to a particular girl, Cassidy (Tomei). She is older than most of the girls and takes a fair amount of grief for it from young punks who come to the club, which may be why the Ram likes her so much – in many ways, they’re in the same situation.

She has a young son as the Ram has a daughter (Wood), although he is estranged from his; the constant traveling of his profession kept him away from most of her important moments and all of her birthdays. She wants nothing more to do with the broken down piece of meat that her father has become.

However, the invincibility of the Ram has come into question. After a particularly brutal match in which a staple gun is used on the Ram’s leathery skin (hey, these kinds of matches actually happen) and having the staples painfully removed, he collapses in the locker room. He wakes up in the hospital, where the doctor explains that he’s had a cardiac bypass operation and his wrestling career is over.

Alone, without even the solace of the ring, Randy begins to reach out – to his daughter, to Cassidy, to anyone. He is making some small progress, but his own failings get in the way. His world crumbling around him, Randy agrees to a match – a 20th anniversary match against his greatest opponent, the Ayatollah (Miller) – that could lead to a big payday. It could also lead to the Ram’s demise.

Much has been made of Rourke’s performance, and I absolutely agree – this will be the performance he will be remembered for. While Sean Penn would win the Oscar for his role in Milk (and to be honest, Penn nailed the part), it should have gone to Rourke. Rourke’s Randy “the Ram” is much like a bull in a bullring; magnificent, strong and fierce, roaring at those who seek to skewer him, bellowing to let the world know he is there and should not be taken lightly. His performance is central to the movie’s appeal and shouldn’t be missed.

Kudos should go to Aronofsky for capturing the backstage world of professional wrestling. Accurate by all accounts (pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper purportedly was moved to tears by the movie), one gets a sense of the camaraderie of the boys in the back, of the quiet dignity and the unspoken desperation.

Tomei’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked either. The stripper with a heart of gold is a bit of a cliché in the movies, but Cassidy’s heart is tarnished. A good person, she looks at her chosen line of work as a means to an end. Interacting with customers should be limited to her stage show and the occasional lap dance. She is friendly, but keeps people at arms length. She likes the Ram, but can’t allow herself to become involved with him. Therein lies the road to heartbreak and trouble, and she wants neither. Like the Ram, she wears her loneliness as a protective shield.

This is one of those movies that gets under your skin and stays there. You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to love Randy “the Ram” Robinson or root for him. This is a human story at its very core, more about a man who has made mistakes and has been wounded by them than about leg drops and arm bars. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. When the credits roll, I guarantee that you won’t forget Randy Robinson for a long, long time.

WHY RENT THIS: Mickey Rourke gives the performance of a lifetime in what is sure to be his career-defining role. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ll be drawn into the world of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. This is one of the best movies of 2008.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The wrestling violence is pretty graphic, and the depiction of Randy’s heart attack may be a bit much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic wrestling violence (there is a great deal of blood) as well as a high dose of sexuality and nudity make this more of a film for mature sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The final match of the movie was filmed during an actual Ring of Honor card. Several Ring of Honor wrestlers make cameos in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version of the release includes a round-table discussion of real wrestling legends Diamond Dallas Page, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Lex Luger (who was used as a body double for Rourke in the opening montage of Randy “The Ram” Robinson at his height), Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake about the accuracy and merit of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: This Is England